The Grand Duchess Anastasia is revered as one of thegrandest Russian myths of all time. Did she escape the assassination of herfamily or not? Aldus Huxley once said that “There are things known and there are things unknown, and inbetween are the doors of perception”.
This isdefinitely the case for Anastasia who through media was perceived as a beaconof hope for the citizens of Russian in the early 20th century. Iwill be analysing the perception of Anastasia through the naive impressionisticmind of a child in the Animation titled ‘Anastasia’ and how it perceived trueevents to a younger audience.Anastasia, the animated legend wasreleased in 1997 by 20th century fox productions. With massive starpower from people like Meg Ryan, Angela Lansbury, John Cusack and ChristopherLloyd, the animation was headlined for success…And it was.
With a budget of$50 million Anastasia raked in nearly $140 million at the box office alone notincluding DVD purchase. The story tells of the end of the Romanovline at the hands of sorcerer Rasputin. All die with the exception of Anastasiawho with the help of her grandmother and kitchen boy Dimitri escaped the violentmurder of her family. However, Anastasia lost her memory and was raised in anorphanage under the name Anya. Fast forward 9 years and the story tells of herjourney to discovering her lineage whilst simultaneously falling for the sameboy who saved her life in the first place. There are many negative things to besaid of this idealistic interpretation of events, as well as the subtle ways inwhich fragments of the truth were told in the same idyllic fantasy, but firstyou have to know a bit about the real account of events as we know them. The Romanov family was one of thelongest running dynasties of Russia spanning over three centuries. TsarNicholas II; Anastasia’s father was a product of generations of Russiantradition and privilege.
His goal as Tsar was to reintroduce autocracy andrestore Russia to its former Glory in way of his fatalist beliefs along as hisdevout dedication to God. One thing he didn’t take into account was his people.With the growing world of industry, the population of St Petersburg had grown exponentiallyand the needs of its people were direr than ever. After generations ofoppression and being denied basic commodities of life like food, equal pay andrespect, the citizens of Russia turned on the Romanovs until Tsar Nicholas IIwas forced to abdicate the throne. He and his family were forced to live underarmed guard in Yekaterinburg where they were later unceremoniously assassinatedin the cellar by soldiers in July 1918.
The unequivocal message that Anastasiathe animated film tells children is that the Romanovs were good and innocentpeople that were destroyed by Rasputin; the maniacal villain. The dark era ofthe Romanovs is glossed over and Romanticised as a happier time. The Primaryculprit of this ‘lie’ being the overall aesthetic told through the visualcolour pallet.
Most of the film is viewed in warm saturation and hues of brownsand oranges. In Color: the film reader(2006) author Brian Price makes the observation that colour is as integralto the message of a film as any other element of Mise en scéne “Color is thus no incidental characteristic offilm stock; it is anElement, carefully considered by setdesigners, cinematographers, and directors, all ofWhom must remain sensitive to the way in whichcolor can create meaning, mood,Sensation, or perceptual cues” (price 2006)What then is thecolour pallet of Anastasia telling its young audience? In colour psychologyBrown is associated with sincerity and honesty. It is a warm colour with an airof elegance. This explains why any form of association with the Romanovs is seenthrough the warm brown filter.
There’s a royal grandeur established in the warmbrowns and hints of gold, playing on our consistent cultural idealism andfascination with royalty and supposed nobility. The opening ball sceneestablishes a positive connection to the Romanovs and the royal world that camebefore the revolution. Later scenes throughout the film contrast this heavily.The cold blues and greys of Russia are a suggestion of the bleak life ofcommunist Russia and Anastasia is a constant reminder of the warm colours inthe beginning.
She is a visual cue to that world that came before. The warmcolours follow her throughout the story. Animated films aimed at childrenall suffer from the same problem. What they can say is limited and censored forthe viewing of a younger audience and working within these confinements leadsto a romanticization of true events. This couldn’t be truer than in Anastasia.Truths are left out, history is rewritten and characters are completely alteredto make a genre appropriate romantic film for children.
How in particular isthe story romanticized? Animation style. The style of animation in Anastasia is arealistic style called Rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is an animation technique inwhich animators trace over the movements of motion picture footage frame byframe. This is a technique chosen to ground the characters in reality. Thecharacter’s movements are fluid and organic as opposed to the more popularcartoonish style of animation.
This film although a romantic retelling is stillat its core a film about real people and events. To draw them in this realisticfashion adds more Physical weight to each character’s actions. The fictional grownup Anastasia feels as real as her younger counterpart that we know existed.
Age. At the time of her death Anastasiawas 17 years old but in the events of the film in the overturn of the Romanovline Anastasia is portrayed as a 10-year-old child. By exaggerating the youthof Anastasia, we as an audience are more tethered to her fate. In the book ‘TheRomanov sisters’ author Helen Rapparot leading historian suggests that theenduring fascination with Anastasia and the Romanov children stems from thembeing “stuck in a time warp of innocence, beauty, virginal, untainted andunmarried” and she’s right.
The Romanov sisters were the most photographedmonarchs in history. And with that, they were portrayed as everyday realpeople. The youth and innocence of Anastasia was captured for the whole worldto see. She was elevated to a somewhat Celebrity status, not unlike the Britishmonarch today. This film was a means of eliciting pathos in capturing thatinnocence once again and making the audience empathise with her. The Industrial revolution isanother element highlighted in the film.
Establishing shots of Russia areencompassed with signs of industrial power. Factories. Steaming chimneys,trains etc. There’s a reason that the opening number is sung by the citizens ofRussia. It shows the audience a glimpse into their lives. The opening song A rumour in St Petersburg is a crossexamination of the after effects of the Russian Revolution under communist rule.It’s essentially a song about the rumours of Anastasia being alive as told bythe people of Russia. This is perhaps the most honest representation throughoutthe film of Russia at the time.
It shows the state of the people’s access tomedia. Every bit of information they had were rumours/ Gossip “oh since therevolution our lives have been so grey. Thank Goodness for the gossip that getsus through the day” but these rumours made life that tiny bit less bleak.
Anastasia is a literal manifestation of the hopes of a country. Anastasia withall her mystery and innocence is an icon of a world that disappeared forever inthe revolution. The Rumour in St Petersburg scene is an important scene thatdownplays the cruel after effects of the Russian revolution with an upbeattempo song that alludes to a better unattainable future. With subtleties hiddenthroughout the scene like communist enforcement soldiers and the urgentrepetition of the mantra “but please do not repeat”. There are messagesthroughout this scene that allude to the hardships of the oppressive post-revolutionaryreality that citizens were forced to live in. A reality where gossip andrumours were cause for arrest; which only serves to further heighten theoverall imperative nature of Anastasia in the story. She exists as a symbol ofhope.
Perhaps the biggest and mostproblematic change in the Anastasia animation is the demonization of Rasputinin order to accommodate the younger audience. Villains are generally what makeor break a film. Alfred Hitchcock once said “The more successful the villain,the more successful the picture” A good villain can carry a film. However, inthe case of the Russian Revolution the villain of the story was a society, itwas generations of autocracy.
In the particular case of the Romanovs, theirundoing was a consequence of continued ignorance. How do you present to childrena social construct as a villain? How do you explain the complex inner workingof political mistakes and wrong doings? They do not. They instead chose tocreate a sanitized binary opposition to Anastasia in the form of the magicwielding villain Rasputin. Between low angle parading shots of the characterand maniacal character aesthetic, he is one of the scariest villains inanimation history.
If Anastasia was themanifestation of hope in a dismal world, then Rasputin is a manifestation ofthe dissolution of the nation. He is a projected personification of thedestruction of the Romanovs. The problem with this is it simplifies reality andinstead of teaching children the truth it frames the Bolshevik rebellion not asa city of starving farmers overthrowing a feudal system but as a single madmanselling his soul to kill a very loving and kind family. As much as it makes fora great fantasy, in the context of reality it’s a bastardisation of Rasputin. They created a villain that essentially is aconstructed lie to elevate the moral justifications of Anastasia.
He is a twodimensional social construct of what an archetypal villain should be. Rasputinis merely a malleable character to project the failing of a nation on to.In reality Rasputin was no morethan a man of religion that was a trusted advisor of the Romanovs; who in themost vulnerable time of Nicholas II reign took advantage of a power vacuum andenjoyed the flattery of society and women. He was known to visit prostitutesand drink heavily, a lifestyle unbecoming of an associate of the Romanovs. Inthe BBC documentary Empire of the Tsars authorVirginia Rounding suggested that his image was problematic for the Romanovs”the fact that they were close to him and refused to talk about it (hisreputation) just exasperated relations with the rest of the family and with thewider aristocracy, calling into question their judgement”. The Romanovs weretainted by association. Rasputin is a prime example of the consequence of a badmedia presence.
He posed a threat to the Romanov image and was assassinated forit. He was a victim of perception and a casualty of the preservation of the regalfacade. Rasputin’s continued reputation is a relic of the time. Though hisimage was something called into question heavily during the rule of Nicholas IIand didn’t help the strained relations between the monarch as well as thepeople of Russia, it doesn’t justify the total demonization of his name andcharacter in Anastasia. He is a character children were TAUGHT to hate. He is aman children were taught to believe killed the Romanov family under the guiseof a fairy-tale.
It is the perception of this film that further tarnishes theimage of a real life figure of history. Furthermore, this is not the firsttime a real figure has been changed in American film; more specifically for thegenre of children’s animation. Disney is the leading power in the world ofanimation, creating a world designed to replicate human interaction blurring the”imminent margins between fiction and reality” (chesebro and Bertleson 1996)but ultimately all it does is westernise cultural figures, themes and ideals tofit the so-called ‘code’ of Disney. Disney’s trademark innocence of afantastical world of a princess and the ‘magical kingdom’ is operated on thesanitization and cultural appropriation of political struggles, violence,sexuality and even religion; systematically ‘cleaning’ up history to fit aspecific image they deem appropriate for children. A prime example beingPocahontas. Pocahontas is based on the story of a girl called Matoaka, daughterof an Algonquian Chief. Though unlike her ‘Disney’ ending, reality was far crueller.
In reality, Matoaka was sold and married to an English man in 1614 at the ageof 17 and presented to England as an example of a ‘civilised savage’. She laterdied around the young age of 20. This is another figure that over the years hasbeen romanticized and sanitized for the purpose of selling a ‘happily everafter’ story to children. This along with Anastasia does more harm than good.It is essentially playing on the naïve nature of children and selling lies oftheir own construction that are marketable for profit.
Lies that become moredamaging as those children grow up and discover the truth.A century down the line andarticles are still being created with the purpose of proving Anastasia isalive. There are fan pages Dedicated to the continued belief of her survival.Why can’t society let the Myth die? This is probably a societal manifestationof a need for closure. For nearly 90 years leading experts had no idea whathappened to the Duchess. People would rather believe lies that she is alivethan face the harsh reality that she died with her family.
In the eyes of thepublic she is representative of a holy martyr. The Global obsession withAnastasia is a story type that would repeat itself in the media. In 2007 three-year-oldMadeleine McCann went missing in Portugal and the media went wild but childrengo missing all the time. What is it about this one child that continues tocapture the obsession of the world? In the Documentary ‘madeleine McCann: A global obsession’ Micheal Cole publicrelations consultant suggests that it is the universality of the situation “itcould happen to any of us” and it’s that reminder of the vulnerability ofchildren that is a game changer. No matter what situation the vulnerability ofa child is a hard truth to face. The two situations do vary considerably but itis the fact that a heinous crime has been committed to a CHILD that itresonates on a global scale. Children are a symbolic representation ofinnocence and youth.
We protect them because they cannot protect themselves.In recent months, Anastasia hasbeen catapulted back into the forefront of media in the form of the Broadwayadaptation of the 1997 film. However, unlike the film the musical has chosen totake a more realistic approach; getting rid of the Rasputin and magicinfluences and leaning toward a more honest villain in his absence. The Villainis as it should have been along; the communist rule of a post revolutionRussia.
Through the eyes of the sympathetic villain Gleb we see through theeyes of a true patriot of Russia; whose father executed the Romanovs “I heardthe shots. I heard the screams. But it’s the silence that I remember the most.
The world stopped breathing and I was no longer a boy”. This new characteroffers a more honest and three-dimensional villain that questions the actionsof the Russian soldiers. It is a more focused dissection of the guilt of thenation “be careful what a dream may bring, a revolution is a simple thing” thisshows the growing awareness of the media industry. The Broadway show absolvesneither the Romanovs nor the people of Russia of fault, but rather presents thosefaults within the paradigm of a Romantic Story.
‘Anastasia’ as a character isalmost inconsequential. Over the course of a century, the story of Anastasiahas been told and retold in many forms but with each adaptation, a newawareness of the whole picture is realised.Part of the fascination of theDuchess Anastasia and the reasoning behind the creation of this film is thatthe bodies of two Romanov children were not found in the mass burial sitediscovered in 1991. The Russian citizens had no closure as to what reallyhappened to the family. People were so horrified by the brutality of realitythat they created this other reality wherein Anastasia survived. This delusionwas further supported by the appearance of Anna Anderson; a woman claiming tobe Anastasia. In 1922, claims that Anderson was the lost Duchess first becamepublic and without the DNA technology we have today, disproving her claims weredifficult.
Many investigations were held to deliberate the truth with noconclusive answers. In July 2007, nearly 90 years after the Romanovs werekilled the last 2 remaining skeletons were found and the mystery was laid torest. However, with the results being so late, could Anastasia the animatedfilm really be a film detailing the delusions of Anna Anderson herself? Theanimation was released in 1997, before Anna Anderson’s claims were conclusivelydisproved.
The film claims to be based on true events, but could those trueevents be the inner workings of Anna Anderson’s delusions? This could explain ‘Anastasia’s’elopement at the end of the film. The character no longer bears the duties thatgo with the Romanov name, which mirrors Anna Anderson’s real life migration toAmerica in 1928. To conclude the platform of ananimation is a major disservice in the telling of thestory of Anastasia. The film presents a problematic representation of the Bolshevikrebellion and demise of the Romanovs.
It falls into the genre trap ofromanticizing and sanitising a dark path of history in both visualrepresentation and characterisation, ignoring the core historical elements andfigures for the sake of marketability.